- Carol Shields and the Writer-Critic by Brenda Beckman-Long
Carol Shields was a prolific writer of evocative, eclectic, and often elusive works of fiction. Literary critics have found much to analyze in her novels and story collections, especially in relation to her subject matter—the lives of seemingly ordinary women (and men) in North America—and her sometimes experimental narrative approaches. Because of the diverse nature of Shields's literary work, however, it is difficult to find an overarching concept that allows for an analysis of all her works of fiction. Perhaps for this reason, while there have been numerous collections of essays on Shields's work, until the publication of this current study only one monograph has been published that analyzes her oeuvre in a comprehensive way.
Brenda Beckman-Long's Carol Shields and the Writer-Critic is thus a welcome study, focusing as it does on six of Shields's novels, [End Page 111] including her first, Small Ceremonies (1976), and her last, Unless (2002), as well as the Pulitzer Prize–and Governor General's Award–winning The Stone Diaries (1993). Beckman-Long analyzes Shields as both a writer of fiction and a writer of feminist and post-modernist criticism through discussion of Shields's novels that focus on women writers. Explorations of gender relations are of necessity part of this study, while further consideration involves questions of autobiography and biography (including theories of life writing) raised by the six novels.
Carol Shields and the Writer-Critic presents much that is intriguing and original, including the conclusion that Shields's novels can be identified as "ficto-criticism" because they unsettle readers' "expectations and ideological assumptions" and implicate readers in "a cultural critique that is ongoing" (15). Beckman-Long's approach, however, also brings with it some difficulties. Because of the narrow and yet complex parameters of her study, she has left out some texts that readers may desire to hear about. Happenstance (1980), A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982), and Larry's Party (1997) all have much to say about many of the questions raised by this study, but have been omitted because the protagonist of each is not a woman writer.
More problematically, in order to make her argument Beckman-Long sometimes makes leaps her readers might be reluctant to follow. For example, she frequently refers to Shields's novels as autobiographies, when of course they are not: they definitively break the autobiographical pact (Philippe Lejeune's term) because they do not present details of the author's (Shields's) life story. Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden (1977), and Unless are narrated in the first-person voice of the main character, and it may be possible to label these novels a form of fictional autobiography that presents a small slice of each woman character's life. However, Beckman-Long takes this idea one step further and labels them journals, even though none follows the recognized characteristics of a journal, having, for example, dated entries, and even though when named simply journals their status as fictional works is obscured. Two other novels Beckman-Long studies, Swann (1987) and The Republic of Love (1992), are not in fact narrated by the first-person voice of a central character, and thus Beckman-Long's identification of Swann as "life writing" (44) and The Republic of Love as "autobiographical discourse" [End Page 112] (17) is even more problematic. The discussions of several of these novels as both metafiction and metabiography are valuable, however, examining as they do "the critical and theoretical concerns of Shields's fiction in relation to women's autobiographical practices" (19).
At times Beckman-Long takes too literal an approach to Shields's allusive and open-ended fiction. For example, the evidence that Beckman-Long presents to argue that the narrator of The Stone Diaries is Daisy Goodwill Flett's granddaughter, Judith, writing a kind of biography, is of necessity selective, with evidence omitted that might indicate the narrator is purposefully multiple and thus much more subversive than...